leadership on a t shirt

Often the best leaders achieve success through just being themselves, acting authentically and intuitively. Some of them are compelling individuals, possessing that special combination of strength and warmth, bringing people with them on a journey.

Many others struggle, having been thrust into leadership roles from functional areas with few reference points or training. Many of them lurch instinctively towards authority and control behaviours, which undermine their leadership effectiveness. Coaching, mentoring and training are therefore important in enabling successful leaders, but beware…..

….there’s a leadership advisory industry out there, offering advice to anyone prepared to put their hands up for the challenge. It’s hard for aspiring leaders to sift through this jungle and know what really counts. Organisations like 20I20 exchange, where it’s more about asking the right questions than providing the right answers, stand out in the crowded ocean of leadership development.

Through the school of hard knocks, much reading and many conversations on leadership over forty years, I have formed a view that there are six big enablers to effective leadership. They are to:

  • LISTEN and UNDERSTAND
  • INCLUDE and EMPOWER
  • Be COURAGEOUS and DISRUPTIVE
  • Foster VISION and POSSIBILITY
  • Be INDEPENDENT and FOCUSED
  • Act with INTEGRITY and lead with WISDOM

One of the authors and experts on leadership who I enjoy reading is Dan Rockwell, also known as “The Leadership Freak”. Dan runs a blog and tweets @leadershipfreak. His twitter sphere content is prolific and incisive, so I’ve gathered 25 of his best one-liners (leadership on a t shirt) in support of my six themes. They all add colour and richness to otherwise dry headings. Thanks Dan.

1. LISTEN and UNDERSTAND

 “Your worst problem is believing you know the problem when you don’t”

“No one listens until they feel as though you’ve listened to them”

“Moving people begins when you understand them not when they understand you”

“Understand others before challenging them”

2. INCLUDE and EMPOWER

 “Everyone who’s making a big difference in the world is doing it with others”

 “Reach higher by helping others reach higher”

“If leadership is about people, why are you focused on projects?”

 “The more responsibility you expect, the more freedom you should give”

 “Those who cling to authority lose it, those who give authority gain it”

3. FIND COURAGE and DISRUPT

“Leaders who are afraid to rock the boat, eventually sink the boat”

“If you’re satisfied with the world you aren’t a leader”

“Delay makes confrontation more difficult”

 “Meaningful leadership means identifying tough problems and solving them”

4. FOSTER POSSIBILITY and VISION

“Leaders don’t let the past control the future”

 “Great leaders fuel fires. Lousy leaders drown dreams”

“Get people talking about their dreams to inspire others”

“Those who wait for the future to change repeat the present”

5. BE INDEPENDENT and FOCUSED

“Those who are uncommitted find fault. Those who are committed find a way”

“The need to fit in motivates deception and creates mediocrity”

“Indecisive leaders who need to please everyone end up pleasing no one”

 “Weak leaders constantly point out what’s wrong with others”

6. Lead with INTEGRITY and WISDOM

“Leaders who sweep issues under the table will lead stagnant inefficient organisations”

 “The core quality of leaders with wisdom is they seek wisdom”

 “Self-protection and leadership cannot live together”

“Pretending everything is ok doesn’t instil confidence in those who know it isn’t”

What resonates with you?

asking powerful questions

asking powerful questions

Everything we know in the world has emerged through people’s curiosity. In a world where any answer seems to be a Google search away, we are losing the capacity to be curious and ask questions. In the realm of big analytics, where virtually any cause and effect can be identified, the biggest constraint is the ability to pose the right question. In life generally, and in the work place particularly, we seem to pay more attention to problem solving and analysis. We tend to have a short term focus – and the pace of life tends to stifle reflective conversations.

Going a step further, if we can lift from just asking questions to asking powerful questions, we invite curiosity and possibility, which can generate energy and forward momentum. To achieve this, the settings are as important as the questions. Vogt, Brown and Isaacs, in their important paper, “the art of powerful questions” make the observation that “authentic conversation is less likely to occur in a climate of fear, mistrust and hierarchical control”.

For many leaders, it can be a stretch to encourage diverse views, explore assumptions, suspend judgement and look for connections of ideas. If they can climb this mountain and be prepared to embrace the possibilities that may flow from the conversations, amazing transformation can take place.

Mark Strom, a colleague of mine in the 20I20 exchange leadership group, presented a brilliant TED talk on asking grounded questions. If you’re genuinely interested in this topic, I suggest you allocate 16 minutes of your life to watching the You Tube clip. Mark contends that while grounded questions generate stories and conversations from which change can occur and people can shine, many things work against this happening……such as preoccupation with spreadsheets, procedures and  strategy documents. Mark shares some powerful examples of the difference between abstract and grounded questions in his talk. He explains that a grounded question often comes from the side rather than front on.

Mark makes the point that logic works well on what cannot change, grounded questions work well on what can change. Questions like “what’s wrong?” and “how do we fix it?” tend to lead to focus on problems, whereas questions like, “why did you become a teacher?” take the shackles off, liberating people to generate stories that often lead to special insights.

Vogt and Strom both give guidance about how to ask grounded questions – there are certain rules about construction, scope and assumptions (such as the power of “why” above “which” and “who”), but both come back to the most important success factor – “stand back and look at the people who you are questioning and admire them”. Grounded and powerful questions are natural and not contrived. They come from empathy and a genuine desire to want to learn the answer. In a trusting environment, the art of powerful questioning can uncover, for people and organisations, a world of possibility and deep change.

Leaders with the courage and mindsets to undertake innovation at the enterprise level, are likely to also have the capacity to incorporate a culture of grounded questioning. These will be the leaders who give as much attention to developing powerful questions as they do to problem solving – and who steer strategy evolution that engages multiple voices and perspectives in networks of conversations. Such leaders are creating the conditions that will help to future proof their organisations.

innovation at the enterprise level

innovation at the enterprise level

An innovation is something original, new, and important that breaks into a market or society. Innovation is generally considered a process that brings together better outcomes from novel ideas to make an impact on. It is not invention, which is about the idea itself; nor is it improvement, which is doing the same thing better.

Innovation is essentially a learning process. Within organisations, it demands an understanding of why we do what we do, as a starting point to looking at things differently.

Why innovate?

Novel ideas from innovation have been the hallmark of the progress of mankind for centuries. Today, in a world characterised by a collapse in timeframes and rapid reconfigurations of business models, enterprises face a harsh ultimatum – innovate or die. The factors which cause business death are almost certainly not the ones that are being currently focused on, but they can be identified by a systematic innovation process.

Companies employing effective innovation practice drive six times more revenue from new products than companies which don’t. Apart from the differentiation benefits, competitive advantage and profits from new products, innovation reinforces brand, fosters continuous improvement and future proofs an enterprise. Innovative companies also typically attract and retain better people.

How to innovate?

Effective innovation requires leaders to create the right climate and for innovation processes to become embedded in every aspect of the organisation. It requires an innovation mindset within a culture that nurtures, guides and supports innovative thinking and practices. In fact innovation potential can only be sustained if the culture of the organisation allows it.

 While an innovation mindset fosters innovation throughout an enterprise, the best case studies of systematic innovation seem to involve fully involved and endorsed innovation teams from all levels of an organisation, incorporating inputs from customers, suppliers and external experts. Success comes from the ability to deal with the uncertainty of the future and not from an orientation through pre-established objectives or organised plans.

There are no silver bullets here, but success is most likely from a process which inspires vision, creates the right environment, stimulates ideas and then tests the ideas before implementation. Success is when we take those ideas from possibility to probability.

Handbrakes on innovation

Most of the constraints come from leaders who don’t understand innovation processes or who just pay lip service to it. Not only can leaders squash innovation but they can be overconfident in their ability to nurture it. Development Dimensions International measured, in 500 companies, how successful leaders fare at promoting innovation in four major areas: inspiring curiosity, challenging current perspectives, creating freedom and driving discipline;  and found a gap of 35% between leaders and employees perceptions of what was happening. So despite what managers think, many of their employees don’t believe that their leaders actually want to challenge the status quo or hear new ideas, less still champion these ideas to senior management. Sound familiar?

Nilofer Merchant compares many innovation efforts to an “air sandwich” – that is, the top tells the bottom what to do and all the stuff in the middle – the debates, trade-offs and necessary discussions – is missing. This air sandwich is the source of most strategic failure.  The change from a closed exclusive concept of who can participate, to an open and inclusive approach is essential for effective innovation.

Traditional methods of assessing financial viability are also one of the biggest barriers to innovation. It is only by having different KPIs that organizations can understand the different elements of risk and reward in innovation and how they relate to investment levels and financial viability. There needs to be a commitment to the long term view, which is mostly not the focus of standard metrics.

Further material

If you want to dig deeper, Scott Berkun suggests five great books on the subject. There is also a good EY report and a link to an overview of disruptive innovation below:

  • “Innovation and Entrepreneurship” by Peter Drucker
  • “Thinkertoys” by Michael Michalko
  • “Dear Theo” by Vincent van Gogh
  • “They all Laughed” by Ira Flatow
  • “Brain Rules” by John Medina
  • Innovating for Growth” EY report
  • The explainer on disruptive innovation HBR

                                                     “the power of imagination makes us infinite” John Muir